From an ambassador in 16th-century İstanbul

[Turkey Through a Traveler’s Eyes] More musings from an ambassador in 16th-century İstanbul


Taken from the Beyazıt fire tower, visible in this file photo are the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, the roof of the Grand Bazaar, the domes of covered bazaars and public houses, the Sultanahmet Mosque and the Çemberlitaş Hamam. (Photo:

February 26, 2013, Tuesday/ 12:50:00/ TERRY RICHARDSON

“I have received your letter in which you say that you have heard of my second departure to Thrace, and express your astonishment at my allowing myself to be induced to revisit regions so notorious for the barbarity and savagery of their inhabitants.” These words, written in the summer of 1556 by an ambassador taking up a second posting in Constantinople, then the capital of a seemingly all-powerful Ottoman Empire, are hardly diplomatic.

Yet their author, Ogier de Busbecq, can perhaps be given some leeway. For not only was he very much a product of his era, but his words were written in a period when his employer, the Habsburg monarch Ferdinand I, was virtually at war with the Ottoman sultan of the time, Süleyman the Magnificent. As a result, the clever and mercurial diplomat often found himself (understandably given the circumstances) treated more as a potential spy than an ambassador. In spite of both his prejudices and the delicate nature of the relationship between his master and the Ottoman sultan, Busbecq, in the form of a series of letters back to fellow diplomat and friend Nicholas Michault, gives the modern reader some fascinating and often sympathetic insights into the politics and everyday life of the 16th-century Ottoman world.

Fever, dungeons and mutilation

Busbecq, of Flemish origins, returned to Constantinople from Vienna by the same route he had followed on his first foray to a city he describes as the “capital of the world”; that is via Budapest, Nish, Sofia and the northern shores of the Sea of Marmara. It was mid-winter, and en route a companion “was carried off by an attack of burning fever due to the hardships of the journey.” When Busbecq finally reached Constantinople he was full of foreboding, as the message he was carrying from Ferdinand I (that he would not negotiate on or give up Transylvania) was unlikely to please Süleyman. Indeed several Turkish notables prophesized that when the sultan heard the news his two companions would be “thrown into a filthy dungeon” and Busbecq himself would be sent back to his master with “his nose and ears cut-off.”

Fortunately Busbecq was spared the mutilation, though he and his companions, kept under close supervision, were treated “almost as prisoners instead of ambassadors.” Later he met with the grand vizier, Rüstem Paşa, who had recently been re-instated to the second most powerful position in the Ottoman Empire. The man responsible for the charming mosque in Eminönü promised Busbecq that “he would protect me ‘as though I were his own brother’,” should negotiations between Süleyman and Ferdinand not go the way of the Ottoman sultan. As a result Busbecq decided to stay on in the capital after the departure of his two companions in August 1557.

Earthquakes and house arrest

The ambassador later had to come to terms with something all İstanbul residents must do even today — the risk of an earthquake. “Constantinople is very liable to earthquakes. I remember an occasion on which, just after midnight, our lodgings began to shake with such violent motions that it seemed likely they would fall into ruin. Awakened from a deep sleep I could see, by the night light which was burning, a cup falling one way, a book another, a beam falling here and stones there, and the whole place shaking and tottering.” Busbecq goes on to describe the aftermath of the quake: “Throughout the city, but especially in the vicinity of our lodgings and St Sophia (Aya Sofya), even in the most solid walls it was possible to see huge cracks caused by the disturbance.”

The ambassador was kept under virtual house arrest in a traditional wooden house in what is today the tourist heart of the city, Sultanahmet. He describes his home thus: “The building forms a perfect square with a large court in the centre, where there is a well. The upper story only is inhabited and is divided into a verandah, which runs all around, and dwelling rooms, the verandah forming the inner portion and looking into the court.” Like many a tourist staying in one of the pensions and hotels that proliferate in the same area today, from a back window he had “a delightful view over the sea in the distance.” Few 21st-century visitors will, however, be fortunate enough to see from their rear windows either “dolphins leaping and sporting in the water” or “far away the Asiatic Olympus (Ulu Dağ)…white with perennial snow.”

Swarms of weasels and the value of slaves

It’s even less likely that a visitor today will glimpse the same sights as Busbecq from their front windows. “The front of the building faces the street, which leads to the palace and along which the sultan passes on his way to his devotions almost every Friday.” They will probably be delighted, however, not to find their accommodation crawling with “swarms of weasels, numerous snakes, lizards and scorpions.” The bored Busbecq took some solace not only in the resident wildlife of his abode but also “filled the place with animals obtained elsewhere.” His motive in doing so was, as one “deprived of human intercourse,” to “seek oblivion of our misfortunes in the society of animals.” His menagerie would likely cause ructions in the tourist-thronged neighborhood today, with monkeys his “first favourite,” and wolves, bears, deer, mules and lynx comprising just some of the creatures in the ambassador’s private zoo.

Busbecq’s regard for animals did not extend to his fellow man, however, and he declared that slavery, then endemic in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere around the globe “has various drawbacks, but these are outweighed by its advantages.” The ambassador goes on to write about the importance of slavery in the Ottoman world: “Slaves constitute the main source of gain to the Turkish soldier. If he brings back from campaign nothing but one or two slaves he has done well… for an ordinary slave is valued at forty or fifty crowns. From this, I think, it is obvious what an enormous sum is made when five or six thousand prisoners are brought in from a campaign and how profitable to the Turks such raids are.” Those who hanker for the good old days of the Ottoman Empire might also like to ponder Busbecq’s concluding words on slavery in the Ottoman-era: “They abstain from exercising rights of war against men of their own religion, and never deprive them of their freedom.”

A dog’s life

Given that he was representing one of the Ottomans’ foes, it must have depressed Busbecq to write about the powerful Ottoman military machine. “On their side are the resources of a mighty empire, strength unimpaired, experience and practice in fighting, a veteran soldiery, habituation to victory, endurance of toil, unity, order, discipline, frugality and watchfulness. On our side is public poverty, private luxury, impaired strength, broken spirit, lack of endurance and training; the soldiers are insubordinate, the officers avaricious; there is contempt for discipline; licence, recklessness, drunkenness and debauchery are rife; and worst of all, the enemy is accustomed to victory, we to defeat.”

The ambassador also provided some interesting insights into how the Ottoman Turks treated their animals. Dogs were treated little differently to how they are today, with Busbecq noting, “The dog is regarded by them as foul and unclean, and they therefore exclude it from their houses; its place is taken by the cat, which they regard as a much more moral animal.” Similarly, a dog’s purpose was, then as now, to “act as watchers over quarters and districts rather than any particular houses, and live on the refuse which is thrown out into the streets.” The strays that roam the streets of most Turkish cities today are certainly the descendents of those described by Busbecq, and are still “looked after” in the same way. “If there is a bitch with puppies in the neighbourhood, they go to her and make a heap of bones and scraps of porridge and bread, and regard such an action as entirely pious.”

Secluded women and the prohibition of wine

The Flemish diplomat was not the first foreigner to look upon the position of women in Islamic societies with a mixture of admiration and unease, noting: “The Turks set greater store than any other nation on the chastity of their wives. Hence they keep them shut up at home, and so hide them that they hardly see the light of day. If they are obliged to go out, they send them forth so wrapped and covered they seem to passers-by to be mere ghosts and spectres. The Turks are convinced that no woman who possesses the slightest attractions of beauty or youth can be seen by a man without exciting desires and consequently being contaminated by his thoughts. Hence all women are kept in seclusion.”

Turkey’s current government has raised fears in some secular quarters that they may follow in the footsteps of Süleyman the Magnificent in banning alcohol, with Busbecq wryly commenting: “The Sultan is becoming day by day more scrupulous in his religious observance. An edict was therefore passed forbidding the importation of wine into Constantinople in the future, even though it was intended for Christians and Jews.” The ambassador, like many a staunchly secularist Turk or expat would be were the same measures applied today, was anxious, writing, “This edict closely concerned me and my people, since we were quite unaccustomed to drinking water only.” Luckily for Busbecq a typically Turkish compromise was found whereby the Christians were permitted to have as much “wine as we wanted put shore at the sea-gate. On the appointed night we were to have carts and horses ready to convey the wine with the least possible noise to the house.”

In August 1562 Busbecq departed Constantinople for a final time, taking with him three fine horses gifted to him by Rüstem Paşa’s successor to the role of grand vizier, Semiz Ali Paşa. He clearly found life challenging in Constantinople much of the time, and had the usual Christian prejudices against the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire. He did, though, have great respect for the hardy and disciplined Turks among whom he found himself, and his letters home are an invaluable source for the period.

“Turkish Letters” by Olgier de Busbecq is published by Eland Books. ISBN-13: 978 0-907871-69-9


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